A hour north of Tokyo and a short hop from Kasumigaura lake lies the twin-peaked summit of Mt. Tsukuba, one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. While hardly a monster, the mountain played an important role as a training ground for followers of Shugendo. The mountain itself has a long and fascinating history, overshadowed by the 20th century additions of a ropeway, funicular tramway, and a mountaintop restaurant. These abominations can catch the casual visitor off-guard, but Kanako and I knew what we were in for, lowering our expectations for our impending visit. We’d already had lots of practice being let-down by scaling three of Kansai’s most developed summits (Ikoma, Rokko, and Kongo for those out of the loop), so we knew exactly what Tsukuba had in store for us….or did we?
After a long train and bus ride from the capital city, the two of us arrived at Tsukuba shrine just before noon on a sunny but blustery Christmas day. The path immediately dove into a surprisingly calm and tranquil forest, which stayed within spitting distance of the tracks of the funicular railway. As we rose higher above the valley floor, I tried to picture what the forest must have looked like before Japan’s obsession with cedar began. The downfall of the great mountain started with the Meiji Restoration, when most of the great temple that flanked these slopes was destroyed in favor of the “state” religion of Shinto. Next came the cable car, whose tracks Kanako and I marveled at for the better part of an hour on the straightforward ascent. The railway was opened in 1925, which means the summit desecration must have ensued not long after. The route started to steepen, as the tracks entered a long tunnel and we traversed across the top of the entrance towards the saddle connecting the two peaks. Here the cedars gave way to deciduous forest which offered glimpses of the Kanto plain through the bare branches and dense underbrush. We stopped for a quick break, replenishing lost fluids on the somewhat tough climb. From all of the destruction on the peak you would think it would be a walk in the park, but after examining the map we realized there was a 600-meter vertical elevation gain from the shrine to the summit, most of it without switchbacks that would have made things a bit easier.
Shortly before 2pm, Kanako and I topped out on the saddle, took one look at the shuttered restaurant blocking most of the path, and turned left, reaching the summit of Nantai (the male peak) a few minutes later. Here we confronted the stiff gales swooping across the plains from Tochigi. Tsukuba rises abruptly out of the valley, and there are no other peaks north of here until reaching the volcanic highlands of Oku-shirane, which lay in deep snow and a thick layer of cloud. The batteries on my camera started to give out, as I wondered if I’d be able to get any summit photos before they expired for good. I had plenty of film but no back-up power source. Our next stop along the ridge was Nyotai, Tsukuba’s female counterpart and the higher of the two peaks. The path from the restaurant to the high point was lined with concrete, an unwelcome sight after the greenery spreading out below us. We pushed past a pair of pensioners out for a Monday afternoon stroll, but apart from them, the whole area was deserted. Perhaps it was because of the impending New Year’s holiday, or perhaps it was the subzero temperatures that kept the crowds at bay. Whatever the reason, we had no reason to complain and enjoyed the solitude that peak #42 offered.
After a modest lunch of chocolate and sandwiches, Kanako and I meandered down the eastern side of the peak, past some mesmerizing rock formations that must’ve provided those Shingon monks of yesteryear hours of meditative dedication. Instead of following the ridge all the way down to the hot spring and ropeway, we spied a loop trail on the map that would take us back to the bus stop. Turning right, the route dropped headlong into a thick forest of cedar and hardwood trees. By this time the light began to fade, as our late start meant that the sun would reach the horizon before we would. We quickened the pace as much as we could, but again the lack of switchbacks and the steepness of the angle afforded sturdy footwork that couldn’t be rushed. Exiting the forest shortly before 5pm, we reached the paved road above the shrine, following the zig-zags of the contours with our feet, and the orange glow of an advancing evening with our eyes. As I peered out at the horizon, Mt. Fuji’s majestic cone stood out like a cigarette butt in a sea of fiery ash. I brought the viewfinder to my cornea, but the batteries had long been exhausted. What I couldn’t capture on film I would have to simply emboss on my prefrontal cortex.
Due to our poor timing, Kanako and I had over an hour to kill before the next bus, so we strategized about our upcoming traverse of Tanzawa, set to commence in two days time. We had one more day of lazing about Tokyo before the real work began.